Introduction

Introduction

By
Linda Jones, Paul Jones
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743791295
Photographer
Lauren Bamford

Dolores and I were high school friends. We lost touch after school but rekindled our relationship years later through our mutual friend Theresa. Fitzroy was our neighbourhood. We lived there together in the late nineties, frequenting Brunswick Street hangouts such as The Night Cat and Gypsy Bar.

Dolores (or Dee, as she was known by many) and I believed the street lacked a good continental deli. There had been a small mum-and-dad shop that served huge slabs of cheese and charcuterie on thick slices of bread. It was a local favourite but had sadly closed down, leaving a pretty big hole.

The idea for an 'alimentari' (which is essentially an Italian grocery store) came about after I'd travelled through Italy and pretty much eaten my way from alimentari to alimentari. The concept of being able to pick out a bread roll and choose from the magnificent ingredients to build my own panini was amazing. Certainly a far cry from the cucumber, shredded carrot and sliced cheese available back home at the time. Dolores had extensive experience working at a deli in Port Melbourne and our mutual love of food inspired us to take our vision to the next level.

So in 1998, we planned to open a small delicatessen on Brunswick Street. It would be rustic and cosy with shelves full of Italian and Middle Eastern groceries. It was important our backgrounds – mine Lebanese and Dee's Italian – be well represented.

Needless to say, our dream preceded our finances. We pretty much did everything back to front. We trawled Brunswick Street looking for the perfect venue and we eventually found it: Clones Menswear at number 251. Those around at the time may recall the heads mounted onto the outside wall. The building had the exact vintage feel that we wanted (our vision at the time was a 1950s Italian deli – as it still is). We hunted down the agent who informed us that the tenants' lease was coming up. So we jumped at the opportunity and figured we'd get the money after we'd taken over the lease. Except no bank would give us a loan: two women in their early 30s with no man involved? No way.

We began renovating and trying to find capital at the same time. We smashed down walls, painted 18-foot-high ceilings while standing on rickety ladders, searched for stock, negotiated a free coffee machine and found a beautiful 1960s deli cabinet (which is still going strong) from a second-hand store in Richmond. Gingham curtains, dark wooden shelving and lino flooring – we thought it looked amazing. Lavazza gave us two collapsible outdoor tables and chairs, which we used as our indoor furniture.

Still no money. Dee’s brother Joe came to the rescue and our silent partner at the time came up with the rest. But it still wasn’t enough. So, there was a lot of of stalling and negotiating to get around tradies and suppliers. And our friends helped us along the way, cleaning and stocking shelves.

The night before we opened, Dee and I sat on the floor and admired our business. We were so proud, tired, nervous and excited. We began to jokingly role-play our first customer interaction.

“Good morning, can I help you?”

“Yes, I would like a focaccia.”

"Certainly, have here or take away?”

It was at that point, at 11 o’clock on the night before our big opening, that we realised we had no plates! So off to the supermarket we went, armed with a cheque book, not knowing if it was ready to use or not. Needless to say, we were pretty shattered the next morning. But we did it, with plates.

After a while the two tables turned into a couple more. The deli was slowly becoming known as the place to come for a quick, fresh, delicious meal. It was, and still is, a place you could come to by yourself and feel comfortable, and know that you would most likely end up bumping into a friend. Our end of Brunswick Street was where locals would shop and hang out. We were fortunate to become part of the local fabric and we loved it. We were a part of a friendly and supportive network of traders such as Black Cat, Vasette, Thomas Gannan, Guernica and Jasper Coffee.

Dee and I worked seven days a week. The strain of working 12 hours a day began to take its toll. We could barely look at each other without fighting. So, in our infinite wisdom, we decided that if this was to be our life for the foreseeable future, then we still needed to live it. Our favourite club, Honky Tonks, became our regular haunt. I know a few locals who would be able to recall many a morning seeing Dolores driving the coffee machine looking magnificent with her shades on and me dying in the corner.

At this point we were offering five different panini, and every morning my mother Manera would deliver hot Lebanese pies, kibbeh and felafel. We were slowly becoming busier and we knew we had to offer more. However the thought of letting someone else in and paying wages was pretty scary. We decided to employ a friend of ours, Marina, who is an amazing cook. We were able to offer a soup and a pasta, as well as a few extras such as our tomato bruschetta and our BEST, which are still on the menu today.

We were a family, and we began to recruit like-minded people who loved hospitality and food. We soon employed a wonderful local guy called Drew, and Dee's family members Sassie and Josh. They all embodied what we stood for – they loved food, people and having a good time. We knew every person who walked through that door. To this day, I feel that is still what makes Alimentari so special.

In early 2005 I met and fell madly in love with my now husband and business partner Paul Jones. Unfortunately, at the same time, our lives were changed forever when Dee was diagnosed with cancer.

Dolores decided cancer wasn’t going to slow her down and that she still wanted to be a part of the business. While I stayed at home with my first child, Dolores ran the place. She would have her chemo, come in with the chemo pack strapped to her waist and rock that coffee machine. Dolores was Alimentari and for five years, she fought a brave battle. Dee began to pull back around 2008 and Paul stepped in.

Throughout all the bickering, hard work and constant demands of running a business, Dee and I had become sisters. She was at my side on my wedding day, and she is godmother to my daughter Aziza. She was with me through the difficult birth of my son Axel and through every other major moment in my life. Unfortunately, Dee passed away on June 19, 2010. To this day, her presence is felt and I can still hear her voice in every decision being made (I won’t repeat what she’s saying though!).

Paul is an amazing chef. I credit him for helping make Alimentari into what it is today, and this book is full of recipes that have been developed and executed by him. Over time we expanded our menu to take-home meals, knocked down walls, got rid of our back room and took full advantage of the beautiful space we inhabit.

By updating the kitchen, extending the seating area and taking the menu to new heights, Paul helped Alimentari grow up and be taken a little more seriously. Through his vision, Alimentari pioneered the extensive sale of the quality salads which we are known for today. At this point, Amit and Kaji began working with us and Paul trained the boys from humble beginnings as kitchen hands, to eventually become the backbone of our Brunswick Street kitchen.

As a married couple with young children, working together every day has its challenges, and it can literally make or break your relationship. But Paul is a wonderful man who is the most amazing father and partner – both in life and in business.

Keeping up with the demand for our range of takehome meals was behind the expansion to Smith Street. At the time, we were in partnership with my close friend Meaghan running Gorski & Jones. The business next door closed down and Paul thought it would be a great space for our food store. The wall came down and Smith Street Alimentari was born.

In 2004 we employed a sweet 17-year-old girl from Kerang by the name of Ashlee. Ash grew to love Alimentari as much as I did. She got it. So, when I was home with my young children, it gave me peace of mind knowing Ash was there. I'm thrilled that Ash is now our partner at Brunswick Street Alimentari, and if it wasn’t for her, Smith Street would not have been possible.

Alimentari has almost become its own entity. I often get asked about our initial business plan. We never had one. For the past 18 years the business has told us what to do. The key was, and still is, to listen to it. We never had a publicity machine, we never really had that many reviews or write-ups. We’ve had the support of our community. It’s been a slow growth, which is maybe the reason for our success.

This book is not about reinventing the wheel. It’s a collection of simple recipes, some of which have been on our menu since we first opened. It’s been a wonderful and emotional journey for me to write it.

I hope you enjoy my story.

Linda Jones

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